A voluntary international code of conduct for private security companies is an initiative to improve oversight and accountability to an industry marred by allegations of human rights abuses.
Five members of ASIS International were among the signatories last week to a voluntary international code of conduct for private security companies in an initiative to improve oversight and accountability to an industry marred by allegations of human rights abuses.
The 16-page International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers was signed by 58 companies—including industry leaders such as Control Risks, DynCorp, and G4S—in Geneva, Switzerland. The Swiss-facilitated agreement also received strong support from the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom. Companies that signed the code affirmed that they have “a responsibility to respect the human rights of, and fulfill humanitarian responsibilities towards, all those affected by business activities, including personnel, clients, suppliers, shareholders, and the population of the area in which services are provided,” according to the document
“The writing’s been on the wall for a long time for companies to get their act together and act professionally and do the right thing and operate in a safe and responsible manner,” said ASIS member Liam McNulty, director of LSA, who signed the code.
Signatories agreed to ensure that their employees and subcontractors will take reasonable steps to avoid the use of force, treat detainees humanely, and not engage in torture, sexual exploitation, or forced labor. The signing companies also agreed to vet their employees and subcontractors for any behavior in their past that should bar them from carrying weapons, like criminal activity or a dishonorable discharge from the military.
The push for an industry-led code of conduct has been in the making for years, but received a new push after the killing of 17 civilians at Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007 by Blackwater private military contractors. Blackwater, now known as Xe Services, was among the signatories in Geneva.
The code puts “security back into the context of society again,” said ASIS member Allan McDougall, owner of Evolutionary Security Management. He believes the code will contribute to the overall professionalization of the industry as well as respect for fundamental human rights.
A member who signed the code but did not want to be named said the code of conduct will assist clients in choosing companies that can demonstrate that they respect human rights and international law. He underlined the need though for robust accountability processes, but noted that many smaller companies may find it difficult to implement the code and its associated governance arrangements because they don’t have the resources.
Though a decision has yet to be made by the code’s initiators and signatories, it may well fall to ASIS International, an ANSI-accredited standards developer, to spearhead the international effort to make the code operational and enforceable.
The association has already taken the lead on developing the ANSI American National Standards for the U.S. Department of Defense. The standards will take the Code of Conduct, which is a good statement of principles, and convert it into a set of standards with auditable criteria and conformity assessment system to put “some teeth” into the code by providing a way to hold companies accountable, says Marc Siegel, the association’s commissioner of the Global Standards Initiative.
The standards, therefore, will create enforcement and oversight mechanisms to do just that. The first standard will be a management system to help companies organize their house in a way to achieve the goals of the code of conduct. The second part is a conformity assessment and auditing standard that supports companies in validating that they are fulfilling the code’s purpose.
As ASIS International develops the standards, it will invite all the countries represented at the Geneva signing to participate in creating the American standard. “It will not simply be an American-centric document,” Siegel said. “The idea is that the standard, from its very beginning, will be a standard that is useable in any country, anywhere in the world.”
Siegel said he expects the standards to be finished by the end of next year. “The Department of Defense really wants this done quickly,” he said. “They’re looking within a year to start holding people’s feet to the fire on this.” Within five years, ASIS International hopes to have the American standard accepted by the International Organization of Standardization, making it a truly international standard.
The code will probably operate along a carrot-and-stick approach, believes McNulty. Companies that sign up will be eligible to receive government contracts but will probably lose their ability to compete for contracts if they violate the code.
“I believe it will improve the quality and deliverance of services,” he said. “It’s a good initiative and it will deliver change.”
A human rights activist at the signing was optimistic about the code’s influence on private security companies. "This Code is a strong document and an important step in building an effective scheme for improving this industry's human rights performance," said Human Rights First's Devon Chaffee in a statement.
But the proof of the companies’ intent will be proven after the participants erect an enforcement mechanism to hold human rights violators accountable. "Its true value will depend on how it's enforced,” she said. “The Code's credibility will rest upon the ability of that mechanism to hold signatory companies to account."
Not all human rights advocates are convinced of the code’s worth.
"The international code of conduct is a good document, but it's just window dressing," José Luis Gómez del Prado, who heads the United Nations’ Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries, told The Wall Street Journal in late October
. "We need a legally binding instrument. Because what is happening is very serious—it's the privatization of war."
The member who did not want to be named disagreed with the notion that private security industry as a whole is to blame for abuses that occurred in the past. Not all PSCs are the same, according to the member, who identified the differing operational records of companies working in the field, which reflect the differing professional standards they apply to their work.
PSC clients also have their own end of the bargain to uphold.
“I cannot emphasize enough the leverage that clients—many of whom are, directly or indirectly, government— already hold,” the member said. “They can have a huge impact on industry standards in this area by only contracting with quality companies.”
Picture by the U.S. Marine Corps/WikiMediaCommons